Even libertarians don't want private roads

Can you ever have free-market highways?

Just missing the UK news agenda, the Atlantic has a post up on road tolls and private highways. In a reversal of the norm for discussions of high degrees of privatisation, its merely a theoritical concern for Americans, but has deeply practical relevence for Brits.

Timothy B. Lee writes:

While I'm generally sympathetic to the idea of privately-managed roads, I've become convinced that the broader vision of "free-market roads" is a conceptual confusion. In the abstract, the idea of competing, privately-owned roads has a lot of appeal. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Roads are deeply intertwined with governments. They always have been and as far as I can see they always will be. This means that they'll never be truly private in the sense that other private companies like restaurants or shoe factors can be.

Assembling the land needed for a long-distance road is prohibitively expensive without government assistance. Unsurprisingly, private roads almost never come into existence without extensive government assistance. And that means that the profitability of a "private" road depends crucially on how many competing roads the government allows to exist.

Lee is no anti-privatisation zealot, either. An adjunct scholar with the high-libertarian Cato Institute, he's exactly the sort of person who would love to support the government taking a back seat on provision of transportation.

It is noteable that the government's plans don't involve large scale private road-building, but the lesser challenge of handing over the maintanence and development of existing roads to private investors on extremely long-term leases. If the private companies do so purely through existing funding, then the issue is merely one of comparative efficiency of the public and private sector, and the privatisation is just a showy, irreversible outsourcing. But if, as Cameron suggested, they are allowed to charge tolls on new capacity, then that carries additional risks.

As Lee argues, because any large scale road-building (which surely includes things like adding extra lanes to motorways, cited by Cameron as something which could be funded through tolls) requires massive public support, through use of eminent domain to assemble the land and no-compete clauses to prevent revenue streams from drying up, tolls on previously public roads represent, at least in part, a tax on mobility.

There is one key difference between the American and British contexts, though; in the UK, competition – of a sort – exists. Freight is frequently moved through the rail network as well as the roads, and shipping is far more useful in a country which is never further than 70 miles from the sea. Of course, true competition means avoiding "too-big-to-fail" scenarios; for now, the idea of reposessed roads might be a bit much to handle.

Future of British roads? A Bolivian highway. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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George Osborne takes up job at BlackRock - but what does it mean for politics?

The former Chancellor insists he hasn't forgotten about the Northern Powerhouse.

George Osborne is to take up a part-time role at asset management giant BlackRock.

The former Chancellor is understood to have been hired by the chief executive of the world's biggest investor, Larry Fink. He will be working alongside his former economic adviser Rupert Harrison.

The appointment has been approved by the Independent Appointments Committee and Osborne intends to continue as a backbench MP.

He said: "I am excited to be working with the BlackRock Investment Institute as an adviser. BlackRock wants better outcomes for pensioners and savers - and I want to help them deliver that. It's a chance for me to work part-time with one of the world's most respected firms and a major employer in Britain. 

"The majority of my time will be devoted to being an MP, representing my constituents and promoting the Northern Powerhouse.  My goal is to go on learning, gaining new experience and get an even better understanding of the world."

Once tipped as a future Prime Minister, Osborne's career ambitions were stymied after he backed Remain in the EU referendum and was sacked in Theresa May's Cabinet reshuffle. Whether he will find the halls of fund managers more comfortable than the green back benches is yet to be seen, but for now he has been clear he intends to continue his constituency duties. 

He will work at the BlackRock Investment Institute, which researches geopolitical, technological and economic trends. 

He is expected to provide insights on European politics and policy, Chinese economic reform, and trends such as low yields and longevity and their impact on retirement planning. 

While the pay packet has not been officially confirmed, Sky News quoted a source saying it would be hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But the move will also place a pro-Remain former Chancellor at the heart of the City of London, just as his Tory front bench is losing its support over Brexit negotiations.

Speaking shortly after the EU referendum vote, BlackRock chief executive Fink said he "didn't get a lot of sleep" the night of Brexit, and that the decision had led to greater uncertainty. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.